Angelina Jolie's Cambodian genocide film deserves to be watched

This film is different from other Cambodia genocide films in that it adopts the viewpoint of a Cambodian child

First They Killed My Father stars Sreymoch Sareum.
First They Killed My Father stars Sreymoch Sareum. PHOTO: NETFLIX



136 minutes/Now on Netflix/4/5 stars

The story: From 1975 to 1979, an estimated one-quarter of Cambodia's population of seven million is dead because of the genocidal policy of the ruling Khmer Rouge. This account of the period is taken from Luong Ung's 2000 biography, which describes her life, first as a child of middle-class parents in Phnom Penh, then as a prisoner in resettlement camp and later, as a child soldier sent to fight the invading Vietnamese.

We have seen Cambodian genocide films.

Most famously, there is the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields (1984), a film that delivers a gut-punch of emotion.

But that kind of power can backfire: Because genocide films are so tough to watch, the viewer often feels that seeing one of these is enough and there is no moral obligation to sit through another depressing lesson in human depravity.

This would be a shame because this film, despite its flaws, deserves to be watched. It is an important film because a big-name Western film-maker - in this case, co-writer and director Angelina Jolie - has used her clout to get this made and put on a global platform.

What is unique about this work is that it takes the point of view of a Cambodian, who is also a child.

The Killing Fields is relatable to a Western audience because Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) served as assistant to American journalist Schanberg (Sam Waterston).

Luong (Sreymoch Sareum) and her family, in Jolie's hands, are well-placed to represent the horrors millions suffered during the period of national trauma.

Unlike Killing Fields, which was a tense escape adventure, Jolie prefers to cast this as a low-key survival story.

And this is where its weakness lies. Luong's Khmer Rouge captors are never given any depth. Beyond the shouted slogans and gun-pointing, there is little that explains their sociopathy.

Also, Luong's stoicism, while admirable, feels alienating. More insight into her feelings at the time would have been welcome.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2017, with the headline Angelina Jolie's Cambodian genocide film deserves to be watched. Subscribe